Drive to end 12-month NHS waits
No one should have to wait more than a year for NHS treatment in England, unless it is clinically necessary, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has declared.
Mr Hunt announced a £250 million drive to eliminate "unacceptable" 12-month waits by performing more than 100,000 additional treatments in the NHS over the summer.
He acknowledged that the focus on "long waiters", whose conditions are often more complex and time-consuming, will mean the NHS missing 18-week waiting-time targets over the coming months.
But he insisted that this will constitute a "managed breach" of the key target and said that the 18-week target would be met again by the start of 2015.
Mr Hunt highlighted a dramatic cut in numbers of people waiting 12 months or more for treatment, which has fallen from 18,458 when the coalition Government came to power in 2010 to 574 now.
He blamed the former Labour administration for imposing "perverse" incentives, which he said led hospitals to prioritise those who had not been waiting for long at the cost of those who had already passed the 18-week limit.
Speaking to hospital staff in Guildford, Surrey, he is expected to say: "No-one - except in exceptional circumstances - should have to wait more than a year.
"We need targets that help patients get treatment when they need it, not targets followed blindly with no regard for the impact on individuals.
"An NHS confident that - in the end - it will continue to meet the huge challenges ahead if it leaves room, amongst many loud, competing pressures, for the quietest but most important voice of all: that of the patient."
Mr Hunt has ordered a casework review of every patient waiting over or close to 52 weeks, to ensure that they are treated as a priority and are not made to wait for an operation unless there are strong clinical reasons.
The summer drive to reduce long waits will see 100,000 treatments to people who have been waiting more than 18 weeks, including 40,000 patients who will be admitted to hospital.
England's ageing population means the NHS is now dealing with 100,000 more referrals for treatment each month than in 2010, while hospitals are performing an extra 2,000 operations a day, said the Department of Health.
Despite this extra demand, the NHS has kept average waiting times below 10 weeks and fewer people are waiting longer than 18 weeks, a spokesman said.
Responding to the speech, shadow health minister Liz Kendall said: "David Cameron promised to protect patient care, but instead he has lost control of waiting times.
"The number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for their treatment has increased by 50% since 2010 and the cancer waiting time target has been missed for the first time ever.
"The Tories say they don't want anyone waiting more than a year for their treatment when they should be guaranteeing nobody waits more than 18 weeks. The truth is that the Tories have mismanaged the NHS - and it is patients who are paying the price."